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Playbook Shares How to Keep Higher Ed Collaboration Networks Healthy

social network concept

What could an organization of universities creating an infrastructure for shareable cloud-based services have in common with a group of schools that convened an "emergency council" after World War I to make sure the country had a sufficient supply of "technically trained military personnel"? Both, according to a new "playbook" from Ithaka S+R, are successful examples of "higher education-focused networks." The first, Unizin, has launched a number of student success applications for its members in the areas of affordability, access, retention and graduation. The second, founded as the "Emergency Council on Education," has since turned into the Association of American Universities, an umbrella group promoting a strong system of research and education among higher education institutions in the United States and Canada. Ithaka S+R is a consultancy that works with foundations, consortia and individual schools on strategic and research initiatives.

Funded by the Lumina Foundation, the playbook offers the network concept as a source of inspiration to the big challenges faced by colleges and universities. As the authors put it, when institutions collaborate with each other, "systemic change" can be "far-reaching." Of course, at the same time, most institutions are already part of multiple networks, some of which seem to overlap in mission. As a result, the report noted, they face the risks of "network competition, fatigue and [increases in] duplication or inefficiency."

The report detailed three scenarios where the network approach has particular impact:

  • When the problem that needs a solution "is complex and important to the community from which the potential network will be drawn";
  • When the "knowledge, expertise, access to target populations and other components of potential solutions are distributed across different organizations"; and
  • When there are no "readily apparent solutions," and therefore the process calls for "iterative discovery" and a general charging ahead on development of possible solutions.

The setup of an effective network can't be taken lightly, the authors suggested. They recommended four important steps:

  • First, develop a "shared vision and purpose" around which to organize participants. The problem should be urgent and something people can get enthusiastic about. And those chosen to be part of the network need to be "strategically" recruited with the purpose in mind.
  • Second, develop a structure for the organization that includes an "embedded backbone" and creation of focus areas and project plans to engage "cross-functional players."
  • Third, "cultivate a culture of engagement and shared responsibility." That means identifying relevant opportunities for network members to interact and focusing both on "shared results" and "individual achievements."
  • Fourth, seek continuous improvement of the network itself through a combination of "self-assessment and evaluation" and revisiting the "key network structures and processes" for sustainability and growth.

And what about the prospect of having too many higher ed networks? For that, the authors advised that the networks do some networking. As they explained, some of the networks profiled in the playbook "are actively engaging in cross-network communication and collaboration, in some cases plugging into one another's advisory groups to share ideas and strategically align their work."

The playbook is openly available on the Ithaka S+R website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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